Conservation of Zhangjiajie National Forest in China: protection or exploitation

Mountain view of Zhangjiajie Wulingyuan

Zhangjiajie national forest park is located in the city of Zhangjiajie in the northwest of Hunan province. In 1982, the original Zhangjiajie forest farm was officially named "Zhangjiajie national forest park", which was also the first national forest park in China. In 1992, this park was included in the world natural heritage list by the United Nations, and was recognized as the world geopark in February 2004. The park covers a total area of 4,810 hectares. Zhangjiajie national forest park has more than 3,000 peaks.[1]

Zhangjiajie national forest park is included in the eastern part of the Wuling mountains. The park is in the subtropical climate zone, with high mountains and dense forests, and the annual average temperature is 12.8℃. The geomorphology of Zhangjiajie national forest park contains unique geo-form and natural geographical features. It is a unique geomorphology formed by specific geological structure position and geotectonic movement.[1]

There are 93 families and 517 species of woody plants in Zhangjiajie alone, more than twice as many as in Europe. Also, there are lots of rare species in this park. In terms of local tree species, Zhangjiajie park accounts for 27.67% of the total tree species in Hunan province. From the number of the plant family, it also accounts for 81.78% of the total number of families in Hunan province.

Forests have become a significant source of revenue for the nation as more tourists visit the forests. The number of tourists and revenue have increased by 20% and 43.6% annually. Between 2000-2005, the park averaged over a million tourists annually. The Chinese government continues to encourage and advertise tourism to Zhangjiajie National Forest Park because National parks provide near a million jobs for people in China. Nature-based tourism has been credited with raising more than 4,654 villages above the poverty level over last 20 years.[2]

Mountain view of Zhangjiajie

In 1949, the People's Republic of China was founded and Zhangjiajie area was liberated. In 1952, the area was later put under the jurisdiction of Xiangxi Miao autonomous region and Xiangxi Tujia and Miao Autonomous Prefecture. Before 1958, the Zhangjiajie national forest area was a communal forest and managed by Xiangxi Tujia and Miao Autonomous Prefecture. In 1958, the Dayong County government set up a forest farm in Zhangjiajie, named the state-owned Zhangjiajie forest farm, to get more profits. Since then, the park has been fully nationalized. In 1982, the state council named the state-owned Zhangjiajie forest farm as China's first national forest park. The title of Zhangjiajie was recognized by the central government for the first time because of the great fame of Zhangjiajie National Park. In 1988, the state council approved the upgrading of Dayong City to prefectural level, establishing Yongding district and Wulingyuan district. Cili county, formerly belongs to Changde City, and Sangzhi County, Xiangxi Tujia and Miao autonomous prefecture, were all assigned to Dayong City. According to the Chinese law, any land within the city limits is state-owned.[2] Therefore Zhangjiajie National Park could be extended to those new regions. In 1989, the state council approved the creation of the Wulingyuan district (county) in Zhangjiajie City. In 1994, the state council approved the renaming of Dayong City as Zhangjiajie City, named after the development of Zhangjiajie national forest park.[3]

China has implemented the management system for national parks with grid pattern which indicates that multiple agencies are involved horizontally and replicated vertically at national, provincial and municipal levels. Most famous scenic spots in China are allocated to territorial management, expect for a small number of places which are directly managed by state ministries.

The local government where the site is located usually is charged with the major management responsibilities at the municipal level, and they are assigned to allocating financial and human resources, project planning and implementation. Afterwards, since the original management route is usually retained after listing the locations, the Ministry of Cultural Heritage and Ministry of Construction and Forestry Administration or Ministry of Agriculture are collaborating with each other in management structure. There are at least three higher-level government departments directly related to the above titles: the State Forestry Administration for forest parks, the Ministry of Construction for scenic areas and the Ministry of Land and Natural Resources for geological parks.

In the past, the site was remote and unreachable, and almost nobody noticed it until the republic was established in 1949. Since 1949, it has been administered by three county governments. In 1988, Wulingyuan District was established and instructed to take action to ensure protection. National policy has always been to upgrade major landmark parks such as Wulingyuan to a high standard, without uncontrolled development. The park combines forests managed by the State Forestry Administration, mountain managed by the Ministry of Construction, and geological features managed by the Ministry of Land and National Resources. The Forestry Department of the State Forestry Administration administers the State Forest Protection Law and the State Wildlife Protection Law.[4]

For historical reasons, the management of the site was overseen by two agencies. They are the Wulinyuan District Government (hereinafter referred to as WDG) and Zhangjiajie National Forest Park Administration (hereinafter referred to as ZNFPAO). WDG is a county-level government administrative unit that is under the administration of Zhangjiajie Municipal Government. ZNFPAO is a state-owned enterprise and a designated agency of the government. After the establishment of WDG, ZNFPAO still retained its authority to preserve and manage the ZNFP. Even though ZNFPAO belongs to the management of WDG, it is at the same administrative level as WDG and reports directly to the Provincial Forestry Administration. In summary, WDG and ZNFPAO are at the same management level in the management hierarchy, but the latter is under the management of the former. In addition, they have different management policies: ZNFPAO reports to the Provincial Forestry Administration, while WDG reports directly to the Zhangjiajie Municipal Government, and the Zhangjiajie Municipal Government also exercises some control over ZNFPAO.[5]

Major stakeholders at Zhangjiajie National Park involved with WDG,ZNFPAO,Zhangjia-jie Municipal Government, related government departments (i.e. Forestry Administration, Ministry of Construction and Tourism Bureau), residents, business operators, tourists and research institutions.  Zhangjiajie has three major ethnic groups: the Tujia, Bai and Miao people who make up approximately 70% of local population.[5]

table 1. the evaluation of involvement from affected stakeholders
Affected Stakeholders importance in management process Relative authority and power level of impacts received from site development
residents 4.88 4.50 4.25



4.25 4.25 4.0
Related government


4.88 4.88 3.25
Business operators 3.75 3.5 3.38

Note: the scale is from 1-5, the larger number means a higher level of importance, ability or impacts.

This table shows that the governments were viewed as having most authority to influence the site development and residents is the second place and followed by Zhangjiajie Municipal government and with the least power in business operators. Relevant government departments at higher levels in the political ladder have financial resources and political decision-making power, which is more conducive to influencing the development of the site. In addition, the implementation of resource conservation activities and conservation policies is greatly affected by the lives and production activities of the on-site residents, which is a huge management challenge for on-site management. Moreover, the residents and related governments are the most important stakeholders in the management process of the region but they don't have rights to make decisions on the policy making front.

The Wulingyuan Administration Bureau has implemented a two-part management plan to promote the development of the site which includes raising public awareness of the beauty and its importance for conservation. And it has established a zoning system which included first, second and third types of protected areas and a buffer zone. The site's master plan divides it into 18 scenic areas. In some areas, visitors are not allowed, places restricted to first and second class conservation zones. Also, the number of visitors may sometimes be limited, and visitors to certain attractions may have to be accompanied by a guide.

NGOs are interested in enhancing public understanding of the evolutionary characteristics, rock formations, geological structures and other features of the UNESCO Global Geopark, and promote the scientific and sustainable development of the UNESCO Global Geopark.[6]

Interested Stakeholders relevant objectives Relative authority and power
WDG Administered by the Wulingyuan Scenic Resort Administrative Bureau (WSRAB) under the People’s Government of the Wulingyuan District, by the Construction Committee of Hunan Province and by the State Forestry Administration. medium
ZNFPAO forest restoration, fire control, regulation of construction projects and monitoring of wildlife and environmental quality medium
UNESCO(NGOs) promoting the popularization of science, providing education on local landscape and culture

WSHIA was listed as one of the 24 national digital tourism sites by the State Ministry of Construction with funding of 90 million RMB

low to medium

Community impacts

The establishment of parks may cause conflict with local inhabitants and park managers. Nature reserves often take away the community access to resources. This will prevent nearby residents (Xiangxi Miao and Xiangxi Tujia)from using the forest resources as they used to.[7] The Zhangjiajie forest was managed by Xiangxi Miao and Xiangxi Tujia until the establishment of the state-owned forest.[2] The state allocated the land to the autonomous region so that they could freely access the forest. When the national forest was established, the state took back the allocated land and limited the control of the local people over the forest. In addition, local people are generally dependent on surrounding forests for their livelihood by exploiting the forest and its resources, and the state's control of this forest removed that part of their income, so they had to develop other sources of income.[8]

One solution is to relocate residents to outside of the park. However, this would need careful calculation about amount of compensation and also the environment of new location. The studies have indicated that the most of compensation is inadequate in China, and it is hard for the people to get a new job when they move a to a new place. Therefore, the government must make sure the local residents can get a fair compensation.

Another conflict may be caused by the management of the national park. Many of the economic benefits of parks may be diverted to outside groups, and this has happened at Zhangjiajie National Forest Park. The local people may not be willing to work for the park because of the lack of well-paid jobs. What’s more, because those people lack formal education on forest management, it is hard for them to transit from silviculture to tourism.[8]

The second solution may relate to the education of local people. Government may set some training courses for them to understand some information about conservation and management. This can help them to work better in the national park, they are familiar with this area and are reluctant to move to other places. Parks should provide them with full-time jobs to ensure their benefits. The local government can also provide some opportunities for local people to get more money by allowing them to create travel-related services, such as restaurants or convenience stores. However, the government needs to effectively regulate these services to ensure the rights and interests of tourists.

Economic impacts

The economic impact of Zhangjiajie national forest park is complex and can be divided into two parts: direct and indirect. The direct economic impact is due to the huge profits generated by tourism and the costs of local government control over national parks. Since the establishment of the national park in 1982, the number of visitors to Zhangjiajie national forest park has been high. As interest in natural-based tourism has grown, so has the revenue from national forest parks. Improvements in the local transport network, including the construction of the Zhangjiajie railway line in 1995, the opening of the local commercial airport in 1994, and new connections to the national highway network, have contributed significantly to the massive movement of people and goods in Zhangjiajie.[9] Domestic tourists can now fly directly to Zhangjiajie from several major Chinese cities, including Hong Kong and Macau, while some international tourists can fly directly to Zhangjiajie from Asian cities such as Seoul and Tokyo. The increase of tourism revenue will directly increase the government revenue, so that the government can obtain many economic supports to further improve local facilities. Government spending usually focuses on local utilities, such as railways and hospitals. For National park, government also need lots of money to monitor and maintain the natural environment, the spending for this may come from government revenue. The development of Zhangjiajie National Forest park will also attract foreign investors, who will set up hotels and service facilities in the vicinity according to the needs of tourists. This will lead to a virtuous cycle, with more money invested, more tourists will choose the Zhangjiajie National Forest park, therefore to get higher profits. Indirect economic impact refers to the benefits of tourism-related services. The development of tourism in Zhangjiajie needs the support of related services.[10] For the local Miao and Tujia people, tourism can boost their economy. With the increase of tourists, local culture can be effectively promoted and related products can also be profitable. So that the local people could get more income to make living. The government and many foreign investors have built many hotels and restaurants near the park, and their profits have increased greatly with the development of tourism.

Environmental impacts

National parks are actually protected areas, it can largely protect local forests and their species. National parks are public areas reserved for native plants, animals and their habitats. IUCN's definition of protected areas is: "A well-defined geographical space, recognized by law or other effective means, dedicated and managed to achieve long-term natural conservation with relevant ecosystem services and cultural values." Protecting biodiversity is the main purpose of protected areas. State-owned forests have a higher degree of supervision and more professional management personnel. Some rare species in the forest require high-intensity protection, and professionals need to learn about the ecological environment and biological habits to effectively monitor the status of the species.[8]

Negative tourism impacts occur when the amount of tourists exceeds the capacity of this area. But actually, the main problem is not the number of tourists but the density of them. Those scenic spots are facing increasing demand, especially during the peak periods, such as national holidays. In national forest park, too many tourists may lead to the destruction of land or plants. Typical impacts of parks and protected areas include soil erosion and compaction, damage to vegetation, disturbance to wildlife, water pollution. Also, those tourists may create large amount of wastes which can pollute the local environment. When the local infrastructure is inadequate to accommodate large number of tourists, the damage can be severe and sometimes irreversible. For China, the huge population and density make it difficult for the government and park managers to detect and regulate the ecological environment and visitor behaviour. In national forest parks, there are lots of rare species which need protection, but most of tourists may not know about this and they may lack of knowledge related to local ecological environment. Therefore, they may harm the habitats of those species. The increase in the number of park visitors means more facilities and services are needed. More facilities may be built in the park and occupy the area of forest which damages the ecological integrity.[2]

Affected stakeholders:

The area is a relatively poor farmland economy, which has changed due to convenient transportation and the development of tourism. The indigenous minorities of the Tujia, Miao and Bai nationalities retain their indigenous culture and customs, but mainly in buffer zones with large agricultural populations (Thorsell & Lucas, ibid., 1992). There are still approximately 6,600 residents in the core area, most of them hotel workers and park workers, but some farmers and herders are allowed to stay if they farm in the traditional way (MoC, 1991). Many have moved outside the park (compensated) and their farms have been repaired. After the name was changed, the area was called Zhangjiajie.[4]

Interested stakeholders:

The WSHIA shared management between WDG and ZNFPAO lacks comprehensive coordination, which reduces management efficiency. At present, neither the Bosnian Development Agency nor the Zhangjiajie Municipal Government has taken effective actions to coordinate responsibilities and resolve disputes. As a result, the lack of effective collaboration mechanisms such that the coexistence of two parallel institutions with shared management responsibilities has led to tensions and unsolved management challenges.[5]

There are four scenic areas in the UNESCO Global Geopark, namely Zhangjiajie, Suoxiyu, Tianzishan and Yangjiajie, with 40 geo-heritage sites of national significance and 12 of international significance in good preservation.Since its establishment, the UNESCO Global Geopark has played a very important role in protecting the earth's heritage and ecological environment, popularizing earth science knowledge and enhancing public scientific literacy.[6]

Since 2003, the central government has worked with provinces, local governments, and park managers to solve many of the problems of national parks in China. They try to strengthen the park system, promote environmental protection, demolish inappropriate buildings, and set central protection areas. In addition, the future direction of national parks is to focus on protection of biodiversity and promotion of private sector participation (provide more opportunities). To solve the conflict between communities and government, the local government needs to compensate local residents and provides training courses to help them work for the national parks. There are other plans to maintain the sustainability of national parks in China. A more rational and scientific planning approach will ensure the protection of natural and cultural areas. This may involve making a list of natural resources, such as species counts, vegetation inventories, and soil and water quality analysis. They also need to quantify the impact of visitors, including surveying visitor numbers, satisfaction and experience, and measuring local conflicts or interests. The central government should begin a process of land ownership reform to clarify land ownership, promote stakeholders’ (interested parties) understanding of legal obligations for land ownership, so that land disputes can be more easily to solve.[2]

To minimize the environmental degradation associated with tourism and leisure, appropriate land use may be required. Also, government needs to put regulation and supervision on the access of national forest. For those rare species, it is necessary to have direct physical protection of their habitats. For those tourists, National park should offer the "forest" course to make sure they protect the environment inside of the park. In addition, it is important to provide incentives to encourage low-impact recreational activities such as meditation, naturalism, and wilderness travel and discourage the use of environmentally unfriendly travel methods to limit the pollution in forest areas.[8]

Seekiefer (Pinus halepensis) 9months-fromtop.jpg
This conservation resource was created by Xiaohan Zhou, Shijie Cao. It is shared under a CC-BY 4.0 International License.

Post image credit: chensiyuan, GNU Free Documentation License